“The Real” co-host and stylist Jeannie Mai, 40, knows what it’s like to work her way up from the bottom. The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants trying to escape communism, she grew up in a three-bedroom home in San Jose, Calif., with 14 family members. She understood what poverty felt like, and set out to build a different kind of life for herself.
At 18, Mai started working at MAC Cosmetics as a makeup artist and trainer, which ultimately helped her connect with celebrity clients, such as Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys. From there, she set her sights on moving from behind the scenes to in front of the camera and landed a gig as on-air talent for a local TV network. Soon after, she moved to L.A., determined to make an even bigger mark.
Here, Mai opens up about how she stretched her money in Hollywood, the art of the side hustle—and why she’s not afraid of losing it all.
How did you make the leap from being a makeup artist to on-air talent?
At MAC, I loved teaching women how to get ‘the look.’ It not only created a unique sisterly bond [between us], but also equipped them with a confidence that’s better than anything you could bottle. Behind the makeup counter, I could reach 100 people a day, but I realized that on television, I could reach thousands.
At 22, I began interning at the largest television network in San Francisco, and I pitched myself as a makeup expert. I told [my boss] that when they had dead space [in between programming] we could use that time to give women makeup tips—and also promote brands to put extra money in [the network’s] pocket.
What I didn’t realize [then] is that I was already marketing myself as a brand: someone who was irreplaceable at giving unique tips. Everything in life is sales—how you present yourself, how you pitch your work ethic. When you’re genuine and have a good product, anyone can be a salesperson.
In 2005, you moved to L.A. with just $271 dollars and no job. What was your plan to make sure you didn't run out of money while you were getting on your feet?
After I nailed it in San Francisco, I thought, why not go to the city where networks broadcast around the world? It made sense for me to move to L.A.
Growing up poor taught me how to stretch a dollar. I shopped at the 99-cent store for basics. I made food at home that I pre-packed for the whole week. I split meals with friends and invited people over for drinks instead of going out. I knew how much to charge for my work, and to upcharge for additional services, like travel. I used rewards cards. I learned how to do my own taxes.
I was also hustling—still doing makeup and styling for shows and celebs, while doing recording gigs on the side to master my craft of being a television host, and passing around my resume to nail the right job. I wasn’t going to sit on my butt and wait for an agent. The way I see it, we each have the same number of hours in the day as Beyonce, so we’ve got to hit it just as hard.
How did you manage juggling multiple gigs at once?
Whenever you have a business, you should look at all the other [ancillary] positions around that job. If you own a car wash and people are going to sit and wait, why not sell books? They might want to get other errands done, so why not add a nail salon or hair salon? Or maybe a tuneup center for your car?
When I learned to be a makeup artist, I thought, no woman is going to go out with just her makeup done; she’s also going to look fly. So I made sure to market myself as a stylist. I worked 9-5 at MAC, and on the weekends I dressed people, went to the strip club to do makeup for dancers and did weddings on Saturdays. I mingled with people who were influencers so I could get into their circles.
“The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss is a great book about prioritizing the things you need to do, so by the time you lay your head down on the pillow at night, you feel like you squeezed the most out of the day. For example, it is just as important to set an end time to a meeting as a start time. That way, I won’t walk out of a three-hour brunch and feel like half my day is gone.
How has your money management approach evolved since you were first starting out?
Years ago, I thought you had to be rich to invest. But even if it’s $100 a month, that’s still money that could be working for you, whether it’s through a 401(k) or a [regular investment account]. Don’t ever let your money just sit in the bank.
What money lessons did you learn growing up?
I had to teach myself finances at a young age because my parents weren’t at a place where they could learn it. When I read [the book] “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” I understood how limited my perspective was and that you should work to [start] investing—not work just to spend money.
I don’t need to be fixated on the media that says a woman needs to own Louis Vuitton. It’s not important to buy the luxury shoes, bag or car, when any other pair of shoes or bag could get me in the door for the job.
Also, when you don’t have anything, it makes you fearless about losing it all. I’d know exactly how to build it back to get to where I am now. That’s the ultimate financial freedom to me.